A senior Israeli politician seemed to run out of patience after a CBS headline, attached to a story about an attack by three Palestinians on Israeli policewomen, did what so many journalistically indefensible headlines have done before it: Erase the ongoing reality of Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
“3 Palestinians Killed as Daily Violence Grinds On,” the offending CBS headline announced. Rather than inform readers that there had been an attack by heavily armed Palestinians, there was only nondescript “violence” that had been “grinding on,” as if supernaturally. And rather than noting that the violence targeted Israelis, including one young woman who would die of her wounds, it recast the three attackers as victims.
When violence isn’t targeting Israelis, CBS and other news organizations seem to have far fewer problems with their writing. (Consider this parallel example of a straightforward, informative CBS headline: “New York City cop attacked with hatchet, suspect killed.”) Why, then, has coverage of the recent spate of violence against Israelis been so often botched?
Perhaps that was the question that motivated the Israeli politician, Tzipi Livni of the center-left Hatnuah party, to convene a session of the Knesset’s Subcommittee on Legal Warfare for an inquiry into biased media coverage of the conflict.
CAMERA Testifies, Reuters Misleads, at Knesset Meeting
Tamar Sternthal, the director of CAMERA’s Israel office, was invited to represent the media-monitoring world, and testified with examples of bias. Also invited were foreign correspondents in Israel, who responded to the invitation with outrage — and with misleading assertions.
Even before the event convened, Luke Baker, Reuters’ bureau chief in Israel and head of the country’s Foreign Press Association, slammed it as a “witch hunt” — though after the event he acknowledged that “the Israeli Knesset asks polite questions.” That a body known for its raucous squabbling came across as “polite” suggests the hearing was anything but a witch hunt.
Defending his own employer’s coverage, Baker insisted during his testimony that Reuters has run (and subsequently corrected) only one problematic headline out of 700 it published since the wave of Palestinian violence began.
In truth, Reuters has repeatedly published distorted headlines that were nearly identical to the one retracted by CBS — which, it should be noted, even Baker admitted was “horrible.”
“Israeli Forces Shoot Dead Five Palestinians as Violence Rages On,” a Reuters headline stated. This, though, was not a story about Israeli soldiers shooting faultless victims. One of the Palestinians was killed after stabbing two ultra-Orthodox Jews; another was shot after stabbing an Israeli soldier; another was killed while shooting at an Israeli police officer; and two were killed during violent riots targeting soldiers who were defending the fence between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
“Israeli Soldiers Kill Three Palestinians in West Bank,” another Reuters headline explained, although the story described an assailant shot dead as he tried to stab an Israeli soldier, and the shooting death of two rioters involved in firebomb attacks.
“Israeli Troops Kill three Palestinians in West Bank, Gaza” is actually a story about a Palestinian assailant killed as he tried to stab Israeli troops (after his attempt to run them over with a car failed), and two others killed as part of a mob attacking soldiers with petrol bombs and rocks.
A clip posted on the Reuters YouTube page, entitled “Israelis Kill Jerusalem Knife Man,” required readers to view the fine print in order to learn the gist of the story, namely, that the comically vague description “knife man” refers to an attacker who tried to stab an Israeli. And so on.
All of the above headlines, no less “horrible” than CBS’s headline condemned by the Reuters bureau chief, remain uncorrected online.
So, too, have an array of headlines from a variety of news organizations treated assailants as victims, a phenomenon that prompted Tablet Magazine’s Yair Rosenberg to sarcastically ask whether the botched coverage was a result of “secret competition.”
Is there some sort of secret competition among headline writers for who can best obscure violence against Israelis? pic.twitter.com/85mwP8pcuc
— Yair Rosenberg (@Yair_Rosenberg) October 16, 2015
Biased Descriptions of Descriptions of Bias
In light of the above, the insinuation by some journalists that concerns about media bias hinge on a small number of bad headlines, or even just one, falls flat.
Indeed, if such insinuations were meant to be a defense against charges of media distortion, in actuality they demonstrate the tendency to misrepresent reality. No serious commentator should pretend, as did The Economist‘s Gregg Carlstrom, that the subcommittee met due to a single, isolated headline:
Sort of amazing that a country’s parliament convened a debate “because of a CBS News headline.” https://t.co/E4TKs1BcHR
— Gregg Carlstrom (@glcarlstrom) February 9, 2016
Nor was Luke Baker’s response on Twitter, claiming that critics can
cite only four problematic headlines, a good-faith contribution to the conversation about media bias:
@Ostrov_A And yet, the GPO, foreign ministry, Israeli police, IDF and Camera could only come up with four headlines out of thousands….
— Luke Baker (@LukeReuters) February 9, 2016
— Tamar Sternthal (@TamarSternthal) February 9, 2016
Headlines, of course, aren’t the whole picture. Just as Reuters headlines have downplayed Palestinian violence, so have its captions, graphics, and news coverage.
Reuters isn’t alone in skewing reporting of violence in Israel and the West Bank. As CAMERA’s Sternthal noted in her testimony, persistent New York Times bias is perhaps exemplified by the way the newspaper covered a Palestinian stabbing attempt, describing the weapon as a “boy scout” knife and allowing readers to believe it might have been planted, never mind the fact that the assailant can be seen on an MSNBC video rushing at Israelis while holding the knife. And the picture of the knife published by the Times showed it was the sort of weapon favored by street thugs and knife fighters rather than by “boy scouts.”
Foreign Press Association Defends the Foreign Press
The Foreign Press Association, currently headed by Luke Baker, went even further in slamming the Knesset meeting and defending the purported objectivity of foreign journalists in Israel. A statement put out by the group mostly repeated with varied language the opening premise that, according to these members of the foreign media, “We do not agree that the foreign media are biased.”
But a closer examination of at least one of the points in the FPA statement only serves to highlight very real, and very disturbing, bias by reporters.
The FPA statement states,
During the last four months of violence, repeated concerns have been raised by international leaders – including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, the EU’s Federica Mogherini and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – about Israel’s use of force to quell Palestinian attacks, with all of them urging proportionality and restraint. …Their comments and concerns have been covered widely by the Israeli and foreign media. The media is the messenger; the criticism has come from world leaders.
Is it true that the media is simply the messenger, faithfully relying others’ viewpoints and statements?
Consider this news brief by The Times of London, which is taken from a longer Associated Press story:
This is, of course, yet another example of an violent attack on Israelis being framed in a headline as a story of violence against Palestinians. But put aside the headline, and focus on how The Times opted to summarize the AP’s longer account.
The original Associated Press story conveys both the Palestinian and the Israeli view about the causes of Palestinian violence. “Israel says the bloodshed is fueled by a Palestinian campaign of incitement,” the wire service reported. “Palestinians say it stems from despair over nearly 50 years of occupation.” Only one of these sentences was carried over to the Times summary.
It is one thing to shorten news copy. It is another thing to cherry-pick, so that what “Israel says” is in effect censored, while what “Palestinians say” is shared with readers. Despite protestations by the FPA, this is clear bias.
And what of world leaders? Interestingly, the FPA statement relays their criticism of Israel, but makes no mention of these same leaders’ condemnations of the Palestinian side, which were often made concurrently. It’s ironic that a document meant to convince readers the media isn’t biased in fact proves the opposite.
But let’s give the FPA the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that, in this case, journalists omitted reference to world leaders’ condemnation of Palestinians because their intent was to explain why criticism of Israel appears in the press. If so, it is a red herring. Of course Israeli officials don’t suggest reporters should refrain from accurately and fairly quoting world leaders. But again, let’s look past the FPA statement and examine the merchandise itself: the news coverage.
On Oct. 23, John Kerry met with Benjamin Netanyahu. During their public remarks, Netanyahu forcefully condemned the Palestinian incitement that he believes fuels Palestinian violence. In response, Kerry repeated the theme of incitement, but in more general terms, without singling out Palestinians: “We have to stop incitement. We have to stop the violence,” he said.
“Obviously this conversation that you and I will have is very important,” Kerry told Netanyahu, “to settle on the steps that we’ve taken that take us beyond the condemnation, beyond the rhetoric. It is absolutely critical to end all incitement, to end all violence, and find the road forward….”
According to a New York Times article about the meeting, though, Kerry’s remarks amounted to criticism of Israel alone: “Secretary of State John Kerry met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
of Israel in Berlin on Thursday and urged him to tone down the harsh language that American and European officials assert is helping to fuel the violence.”
The Israeli prime minister’s reference to Palestinian incitement, meanwhile, was cast in unsavory terms: “[Netanyahu’s] comments on Thursday were far from conciliatory, portraying Israelis as victims who sought only to defend themselves.”
A few days earlier, on Oct. 15, Kerry was more focused, stating that “Palestinians need to stop the incitement. They need to stop that kind of activity.” Turning his focus toward the Palestinian leader, he emphasized that Mahmoud Abbas “needs to not engage in some of the incitement that his voice has sometimes been heard to encourage. So that has to stop.” The New York Times didn’t report Kerry’s explicit condemnation of Palestinian incitement.
On Oct. 28, 2015, Kerry again stressed that it is important for “Palestinian leaders to cease the incitement of violence.” The New York Times didn’t share that statement with readers, either.
Again at the end of January, speaking directly to Abbas, Kerry “stressed the importance of stopping incitement and inflammatory rhetoric,” according to a State Department spokesperson. These remarks, too, were not covered by The New York Times.
In fact, since the Palestinian violence intensified last October, the newspaper failed to report even once on Kerry’s repeated condemnation of Palestinian incitement.
If there is any doubt about editors’ reticence to report on State Department criticism of Palestinian incitement, it is worth remembering the time, just after the horrific murder of religious Jews praying in a synagogue, that a visibly troubled John Kerry described the attack as “a pure result of incitement” by Palestinians. Kerry’s pointed statement, and other references by the Secretary of State to Palestinian incitement, appeared in early versions of a New York Times story on the murders. But by the time the newspaper went to print, they were all cut from the story. So was a statement by Netanyahu slamming Palestinian incitement. Not only was every reference to Palestinian incitement scrubbed from the piece, but, in this story about an attack on Israelis, they were replaced with a Palestinian accusation about supposed Israeli incitement.
The Associated Press, Reuters, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, PBS and NPR are likewise responsible for such soft censorship. When UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon released a statement condemning what he described as Palestinian terrorism and Israeli disproportionate force, for example, each of those outlets quoted only his criticism of Israel, essentially concealing his corresponding condemnation of the Palestinians.
So yes, the media certainly are messengers, as the Foreign Press Association insists in its statement. But just as certainly, they are too often biased and one-sided messengers.
(Nor should the bias be surprising when, for example, The New York Times hires, as a supposedly objective correspondent, a former anti-Israel activist who has in the past publicly admitted her “hatred” for Israelis, and who has described her own objectivity as being “thrown out the window.”)
Journalists Criticizing Journalism
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Foreign Press Association dutifully defended the foreign press. In the words of former BBC correspondent Richard Miron, “the media is instinctively averse from turning the lens of scrutiny upon itself.” One expects it to “veer away from any self-examination,” Miron said, because “it is better at calling out the wrong-doing of others, than admitting to its own faults.”
But there are notable exceptions, forthright descriptions of media bias by journalists themselves. Miron, for example, argued after a round of warfare in 2014 that “the media held Israel to an altogether different standard” than other Western armies operating under similar conditions.
Matti Friedman, a long-time Associated Press correspondent in Israel, penned a devastating series of critiques of anti-Israel media bias by his former employer and others in the media. “The pipeline of information from this place is not just rusty and leaking,” Friedman charges, “but intentionally plugged.” These pieces are required reading for anyone hoping to understand how Israel is covered in the foreign press.
Other veteran journalists have backed Friedman’s assessments. “Journalists became vehicles for the Palestinian narrative of injustice rather than simply impartial observers of a complex conflict,” CNN veteran Izzy Lemberg recently argued. Investigative reporters A senior Israeli politician seemed to run out of patience after a CBS headline, attached to a story about an attack by three Palestinians on an Israeli policewomen, did what Gary Weiss and Richard Behar have also sharply criticized media coverage of the conflict.
So when other journalists testify that everything is okay in the media, take note: It might not mean that the media isn’t biased against Israel. It might simply mean they are okay with the bias.
Feb. 16 update:
Reuters’ Luke Baker takes issue with our assertion that he called the Knesset meeting a “witch hunt.” On Twitter, he wrote:
— Luke Baker (@LukeReuters) February 14, 2016
— Luke Baker (@LukeReuters) February 14, 2016